In a season rich with promise, the moment will be little noted nor long remembered. But it tells at least part of the tale regarding how Lorenzo Romar will manage the egos and expectations of what may be, top to bottom, the most talented team of his nine-year tenure as Washington’s men’s basketball coach.
Late in the predictable blowout win over Eastern Washington at Hec Ed on Tuesday, Isaiah Thomas, the junior floor leader who knew better, horsed up a couple of shots he had little business taking. For the last couple of minutes, Romar benched him in favor of Venoy Overton.
Since the 98-72 outcome had long been decided, most coaches would have ignored Thomas’ indiscretions. Not Romar, not now. Not when the opposition is about to go from kittens to wild boars.
“You always have to coach guys,” was all Romar would say about benching a guy who has been a stalwart for him. “I’ve learned guys want to be coached.”
It often doesn’t seem that way, particularly in the era of the one-and-done when many talented college freshmen believe they are merely passing time because of the NBA’s silly rule denying them employment until a year after high school.
But Romar seems unusually effective in getting players to check their egos. It may put off some of the premier recruits, who see little value. And it could become trouble this season for Washington as Romar doles out minutes to a roster of players remarkable for their athleticism and versatility.
There may be no surefire NBA star as with former great Brandon Roy, but there’s a lot of guys with a reasonable shot at making professional dimes somewhere.
“It’s hard to manage guys who’ve been the man all their lives,” he said. “They’ll think they’ll be in college and be on their way, unless the (college) coach gets in the way.
“Some guys think the only reason they’re not doing better is because of the coach — that’s what their parents and everyone else is telling them. They think it has nothing to do with them.
“If you have 12 guys thinking that way, it’s going to be difficult.”
Some of those kinds of players will be on display next week when the 18th-ranked Huskies are part of an eight-team field of mostly heavyweight hoopsters at the Maui Classic. For the first time, the Huskies will be part of a Thanksgiving-week tradition in Hawaii that draws the sport’s hairy-knuckle crowd.
Washington opens against Virginia, coached by ex-Cougars boy wonder Tony Bennett. If they win, the Huskies will play the winner of the Oklahoma-Kentucky game. Also in the field are Michigan State, Connecticut and Wichita State, along with host Chaminade.
These big-boy brigades tend to draw elite players that Romar seems to just miss on signing. Despite the growing success, Washington and Romar still don’t have quite the cachet nationally.
But it’s not as if Romar confines himself to the wholesome, farm-raised culture. In players such as Nate Robinson, Will Conroy, Thomas, Overton and the latest premier signee, Renton’s Tony Wroten, he has loaded up on street-tough kids who presume to know everything and are most pleased to tell anyone.
“They have such a bravado, or attitude,” he said. “It’s like they’ll say to themselves, ‘If Coach Romar would let me, I’d score 50.’ They believe that. You don’t want to take that from them. You do want to channel it so they can co-exist with four other guys.
“As much as they want to fight you at times, as much as they want to blow up your house or whatever, they really want to be good — the passion to be the best.”
Unlike some high-profile coaches, Romar doesn’t turn a cold shoulder when a player disobeys or disrupts. He and his staff get into the player’s grill with some explanations.
He’ll tell a player, “Don’t ever tell me you’re doing something because I said you should.” Instead, he says, “You’re going to do it, and this is why.”
The notion of explaining decisions seems simple and obvious. But some coaches still hang on to an old-school belief that a good autocrat never explains, just orders. In a time when street agents and shoe-company reps are the power brokers who influence way too much which schools young kids will attend, Romar has to find a way between kissing butt and kicking butt.
“Most guys understand; some don’t,” he said. “They go to their graves saying, ‘The coach messed with my game, or I’d have been in the league.'”
Fact is, college coaching has little influence on whether a kid is NBA material.
“Usually the ones who are going to be the best, are going to be the best anyway,” he said. “They still get there. The model for that here was the Robinson/Roy/Conroy/Bobby Jones group, who all played in the NBA.”
In Thomas, Overton, Matthew Bryan-Amaning, Justin Holiday and Abdul Gaddy, Romar has another batch of round-of-16 tourney talent. The Huskies also have a couple of eyebrow-arching newcomers in seven-foot sophomore Aziz N’Diaye and 6-6 frosh guard Terrence Ross.
They’re all hungry for pub and glory, and all are certain they are NBA material. But for now, for this season, they must submit. For that submission, they will get an explanation.
If they can handle the explanation, they have a good chance to get somewhere their talents alone couldn’t have taken them. Then Romar will have a shot to get the Huskies to basketball places they haven’t been since the 1950s.